Historic African American community expresses concerns about proposed redevelopment

CORNELIUS, N.C. — Residents in one part of Cornelius, an area of north Mecklenburg County many people may not have heard of, are hoping a redevelopment plan recently endorsed by town officials will keep their community from becoming a thing of the past.

But along with their excitement over the plan, Channel 9 has learned there’s also some healthy skepticism.

“In Mecklenburg County, north Mecklenburg County, we are one of the only three African-American communities that are left, and we are all three facing gentrification,” Lisa Mayhew-Jones said regarding the communities of Smithville, Pottstown and Lakeside. Mayhew-Jones is president of the Smithville Community Coalition.

The Smithville neighborhood sits on the edge of Cornelius and, post-slavery, was one of the only places in north Mecklenburg where Black people could own property.

A vibrant community of young families has now transitioned into a quiet community of seniors.

“Over the years the houses deteriorated and have been torn down, so it’s aged,” explained lifelong Smithville resident Ronald Potts.

Many residents said they feel like Smithville has been skipped over by the Town of Cornelius when it comes to investment.

“All around in Cornelius there was progress,” Potts said. He adds that developers now have their sights set on Smithville.

Newly built duplexes, on the market for more than half a million dollars, sit directly across from homes that are original to the community.

Potts said he is very aware of that interest from developers. “I get nervous all the time about people wanting to buy my house,” Potts said.

But Mayhew-Jones hopes a revitalization plan that was just unanimously endorsed by town commissioners will protect longtime residents like Potts.

“There hasn’t really been anything done into the community of Smithville over these 50 years,” Mayhew-Jones said.

At an estimated cost of $27 million, the plan would provide a framework for redeveloping Smithville into a mix of new single-family homes, townhomes, apartments, greenways and commercial properties.

Developers interested in building in Smithville would have to commit to maintaining the area’s affordability.

“No displacement of the current residents,” Mayhew-Jones said. “We’d like all of our seniors to be able to age in place. We’re trying to keep everything under the 80% AMI (area median income).”

Commissioners said they are considering contributing $3 million in American Rescue Plan stimulus funds to the plan.

That’s only half of what Mayhew-Jones’ coalition requested. “The money that we needed in order to buy land, not to do the infrastructure,” she explained. “The town should be responsible for doing the infrastructure.”

While there is optimism around the redevelopment plan, some in Smithville doubt the town’s commitment to the historic community.

“All the years they been saying they going to do this and do that, and you go to these meetings and they really don’t give you straight answers to the questions you ask,” said Gladys Henderson.

But Ronald Potts said he is confident that town leaders are committed to finally doing right by Smithville.

“Over the years we’ve developed a relationship, and I think that trust has developed.” Lisa Mayhew-Jones added to that sentiment. “We know there’s going to be a change, but give us the opportunity to lead that change.”

(WATCH BELOW: Town council votes to shut down controversial Weddington Green Development)

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